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Is It All In Our Minds? Memory and Aging

Posted: Nov 25, 2012

SAN DIEGO--There has been talk these days in San Diego about the relationship between the recent solar eclipse, the earth’s magnetic field flip-flop, and forgetfulness. While many of us would like to point to atmospheric conditions as a reason that we have misplaced keys, lost that all-important paper, or forgotten a birthday, we are perhaps experiencing information overload.

But for many others, memory decline is a frightening reality.

At the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) here last week -- attended by approximately 4,000 -- topics on aging, issues of memory loss, optimal cognitive functioning, and dignity in aging and care facilities are among the broad range of topics.

Your Brain Is a Muscle

One expert, physician Toni P. Miles, pointed out: “Our brains are composed of muscle fiber. And we all know that muscles improve with use. It is vital to your brain’s health that it engage in strength and conditioning that come through cognitive stimulation."

The words of Miles, director of the Institute on Gerontology at the University of Georgia and author of the new book Health Care Reform and Disparities: History, Hype, and Hope, are particularly poignant given a British Medical Journal report last January that memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s may be detectable as early as age 45.

Care facility basics -- cognitive enrichment

Many presenters and members attending the GSA were concerned about cognitive enrichment. Although music and exercise are among the most important activities, too few facilities have a handle on how these can enrich residents. There is little evaluation of programs in terms of:

• Providing culturally appropriate songs whether at a sing-along or from invited musicians;

• Understanding the vital importance of music as participatory with lyric sheets for residents and a repetoire of songs tailored to the community;

• Finding ways to include exercise into daily programs, even for the wheelchair bound as exercise is considered vital for memory;

• Acknowledging different traditions of each culture in reminiscence group discussions;

• Recognizing men might enjoy checkers or chess rather than attending beading sessions;

• Determining a set of recommended books – primarily with photographs that can help stimulate imagination rather than story hours;

• Monitoring news programs with violent images that can result in sleeplessness;

• Following recommended guidelines for Reminiscence Therapy (e.g., Reminiscence therapy for dementia) rather than saying, “Let’s talk about recipes and what you like to cook” to a population that no longer has kitchens;

• Encouraging a range of games, painting exercises, and music activities;

• Engaging residents in activities that are participatory rather than watching (eg. Planting should mean that anyone who wishes gets a pot of dirt for planning flowers even if it means piles of dirt all over themselves.) Gardening is therapeutic;

• Working with residents on gratitude boosters to help alleviate negativity and anxiety.

James M. Ellison, is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Clinical Director or the Geriatric Psychiatry Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Prior to the conference, he noted: "Families need to know that their loved ones are being cared for by a kind staff in an atmosphere that stimulates them emotionally, socially, and cognitively. It's important to remember that even with a diagnosis of dementia people can find joy in the appropriate surroundings.”

Matt Perry, a reporter for the California Health Report who also teaches film studies and screen writing, is an advocate for individual expression through creativity. Very concerned about the use of restraints in nursing homes, he introduced me to the concept of multisensory rooms [MSEs] as a future model, perhaps, for nursing care environments.

Such rooms are "an artificially created venue that brings together multisensory equipment in one place to stimulate the senses…. It changes arousal levels and relieves stress, anxiety and pain. MSEs have been shown to help with autism, brain injury, challenging behaviors, dementia, developmental disabilities, mental illness, palliative care, pre and post surgery, PTSD, special education and of course wellness." [For more on this see the American Association of Multi Sensory Environments.]

Vital Research

As for the future, Holly-Brown Borg is a member of the biological sciences section of the GSA, a group devoted to understanding the processes of aging, “the causes and effects from the molecular to the whole organism level.”

She said, “This enhanced understanding will provide avenues to target age-related disease including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, and diabetes.” Brown-Borg is the Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, University of North Dakota.

The fountain of youth has eluded us. As such, we must depend upon translational research and advocates today to encourage programs and policies that will promote healthy aging in our future.

This article is adapted from Rita Watson’s article for Psychology Today, which she wrote under the MetLife Foundation Journalist in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration between the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media. Copyright 2012 Rita Watson/All Rights Reserved.

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